Posted by: schooleducator | April 19, 2009

Diversity in Schools: No Time for Cowards

A few years ago, one of my history colleagues decided that he wanted to generate attention and discussion around politics and race. My colleague was born, raised and educated in South Carolina and had received his doctorate in political science from the University of South Carolina. On the day of Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, this teacher posted happy birthday Strom posters around the main commons of the upper school. He also made a cake for Strom and put 100 candles on the cake. To garner attention to this event, he wheeled the cake through the main commons first thing in the morning with the candles lit. He used a computer cart to transport the cake and draped the Confederate flag over the sides of the cart. Without batting an eye, he waltzed straight through the commons and into his classroom. He then shut the door behind him.

The entire commons sat in stunned silence. No one could believe what he had just done. Word quickly buzzed through the hallways of the school that one of the teachers had brought the Confederate flag to school and was celebrating segregationist, Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond’s birthday. Students called their parents, teachers went to the head of school and the school day began with a firestorm. The history department chair knocked on the door of this teacher’s classroom and entered to find a lively discussion going on around the looming mid-term elections and the importance of race in American politics. The teacher had prepared a lecture on Thurmond’s legacy in reorienting the southern political landscape in the years after World War II.

We all soon learned of this teacher’s passion for politics and race. He had written his dissertation on the Dixiecrats. However, we did not know this vital piece of information at 7:30 in the morning on the day of his “stunt.” Students and teachers had all jumped to conclusions and made assumptions based on the visual and historical power and legacy of the Confederate flag. For the community, this event brought the importance of context, especially concerning the topic of race, to the surface.

An incident of this dramatic nature does not have to occur every day in schools to mobilize a discussion of race. President Obama has already signaled the okay to deal frankly and openly with race. He addressed it head on in his campaign, in the mode of the iconic Lincoln. While schools nationwide acknowledge the historic nature of President Obama’s ascent, it is important that they highlight the historical lessons of this particular moment. The larger lesson of America’s journey through the race landscape needs to be kept front and center. Slaves built the White House, Bull Connor blasted hoses at peaceful African-American demonstrators in the civil rights era, and Rodney King endured a beating at the hands of white police officers in the early 1990s. Now, America witnesses the leadership of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. President Obama commented: “There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African-American. I mean, that’s a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn’t underestimate the force of that.” Schools need to frame the history behind this incredible moment in America and seize the opportunity to have direct discussions of race and American history.

The last thing schools should do is fall the way of becoming a “nation of cowards” when it comes to dealing with race. Attorney General Eric Holder commented: “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

Schools across America have a unique opportunity and responsibility to pause, reflect, consider, and embrace a deeper, broader and richer sense of global diversity. However, how they choose to broach and act on discussions of diversity and race is critical to the ultimate success of initiatives to broaden a school community’s awareness. In the CBS sitcom episode, “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” the main character, Christine, armed with her do-good mentality to help her son’s private school grow more diverse, seeks out families of color, acts as their liaison to the school, and helps to get one particular family admitted. In appreciation, the parents invite Christine and her son over to dinner. During the meal, the family shares their previous experience at another private school. They express their sincere gratitude that their son is no longer at a school with “all of those fags.” Christine, appalled and alarmed by their comment, almost chokes on her food. Her next mission is to find a family with two dads, thinking that if only the school had this type of family, then awful comments like the one she heard at the dinner will disappear. She succeeds in finding a two-dad family and again, they invite her to dinner to show their appreciation for her efforts and commitment to them. Christine of course giggles and laughs, feeling good about her work, but one of the men states, “we’re really glad to be out of that other school with all of those Jews.” Christine can’t believe her ears. All of her work has backfired and gotten her nowhere. Of course, this episode, laced with humor and satire, makes the point that private schools can have the best of intentions regarding diversity initiatives and efforts to give access to a broader constituency, but the issues are much deeper in terms of creating a community of respect for all peoples.

The ultimate goal is for diversity to work its way seamlessly through the community. Schools can take several steps to begin the process of establishing a culture of understanding. For example, morning meetings, where students at a grade level gather to start the day, can serve as a perfect venue to introduce greetings and holidays from around the world. This is a subtle gesture in terms of planning, but it gives the opportunity to clarify misconceptions, teach global awareness, and cultivate appreciation for difference. Each agenda includes a global greeting, coupled with mention of a specific day of celebration or honoring around the world. For example, one agenda included acknowledgement of Grounation Day, observed by Rastafaris, that celebrates Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica. Teachers take the time to explain a bit about the Abrahamic religious movment that accepts Haile Selassie as the incarnation of God, called Jah or Jah Rastafari (Jah has the same root of YAHweh). Another meeting begins with an Armenian greeting, Inch ka chka = “What’s up?” Students turn to each other, shake hands, make eye contact, and pronounce the Armenian phrase. Students also acknowledge Armenian Remembrance Day, to recall the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The architect of these meetings is a teacher with a passion for teaching global awareness. He has traveled to over 46 countries, and organizes annual service learning trips for students to all corners of the world, from Cambodia, to Mongolia, to Peru. He delights in researching, preparing, and learning about the history and greetings. He often utilizes YouTube to listen to the correct pronunciation of the different greetings. These meetings, with repeated practice and ritual, underscore the value of global understanding.

Another way that schools can foster and highlight diversity is through weekly assemblies. One week, it might be the Mandarin teacher on stage with her students, introducing the community to different characters. Students take turns sharing a bit of the history behind different characters, and explain the visual construction of the intricate Mandarin character. Another week, it might be the Steel Drums teacher orchestrating his students to play Caribbean tunes, with students adorned in traditional Trinidadian costumes. Yet another might showcase a student-led project to raise money and awareness of children with cleft palate. Again, the repeated practice and ritual creates a fluid understanding and appreciation of diversity.

Schools can also saturate physical spaces with student artwork. The images students see on campus can leave a lasting impact, whether it is Egyptian masks, Carnival puppets constructed out of chicken wire, or canvases of Picasso inspired work. Also, the careful, thoughtful selection of library books to display can give children a window into other cultures. In addition, layering classroom walls with photographs of different members of the community, from janitorial staff, to receptionists, to landscapers, to kitchens staff helps students recognize that for a community to function successfully, everyone plays a key part. One long-time educator has remarked that the health of a community can be determined by whether or not children and teachers know the names of the kitchen staff on campus. Not just knowing their names is enough, but watching the level of interaction and conversation can signal the kind of understanding of socioeconomic difference that exists in a community.

There are so many ways to approach diversity awareness, but a school community needs to make a collective commitment to create small moments, in the form of morning meetings, assemblies, or visual displays that can then lead to larger understanding for children.

Also, schools can take teachable moments, and turn them into transformative learning experiences for children. Several years ago I had an advisee who was Hindi. In his home, there were images of what looked like a swastika to the uninitiated visitor. This student had a friend over to his house to play one afternoon. The next day in school, the “friend” told other students that he had seen a swastika in this boy’s house and that the boy was a “Nazi.” Of course, there was profound lack of awareness on the visiting student’s part. The school, wanting to support the Hindi student, grabbed the opportunity to teach the community about the history of the peaceful Indo-Aryan symbol, which had been twisted in meaning by the German Nazis in the 1930s. The parents conducted an assembly for the community, brought in authentic Indian food, and shared their family history and culture. Their son, in turn, felt empowered. So many times during the course of a day in schools, a child can make a hurtful comment to another student, more out of lack of exposure and understanding, than out of true malice. The more that schools can address these types of comments and turn them into meaningful learning moments, the healthier communities will be. The last thing schools should do is ignore these types of moments.

I do not know where my former colleague is now, but I do know that a single teacher should not have to ignite and provoke discussion of race with a “stunt” like a Strom Thurmond birthday party to shake a community out of its malaise. With the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency, and his family to the White House, a sea change in attitudes is in place. The Washington Post reported in an article, Move Over, Miley. In Washington, The Obama Girls Are the Latest Craze: “The tween girls of the Washington area have transcended differences of race, class and wealth to reach a single, resounding conclusion: They really, really, really, really want to be friends with Malia and Sasha Obama.”

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